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Tory byelection proves giving in to homophobes still works, but for how long?

Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown is trying to win over homophobes and progressives, but that strategy won’t scale up to a provincial election

Patrick Brown/Facebook

Well, that was a crazy week in Ontario politics, wasn’t it? Opposition leader Patrick Brown was thoroughly humiliated by his own campaign staff over his ever-shifting positions on sex education before getting rewarded with a byelection victory, giving the Progressive Conservatives a beachhead in the outer 416 area — and for them, a hopeful city victory in 2018. But what does the PC victory in Scarborough–Rouge River mean?

Well, the obvious first lesson is that the anger over sex education, and particularly the LGBT aspects of the sex ed curriculum, still fuels a constituency in this province, a whole year after the curriculum was first introduced.

But it’s also clear that the most vehement opposition to the curriculum remains in the new and established immigrant communities, many of which are concentrated in various parts of Scarborough, which also span the outer 416. It’s no coincidence that the latest political storm was kicked up by a letter that was distributed in Mandarin to Scarborough–Rouge River’s large Chinese community promising to scrap the curriculum — and the outrage over it came from the chattering classes in downtown media and political circles.

A cynic might also suggest that Patrick Brown’s refuting of the letter in a guest column for the Star on Aug 29, 2016, was designed to appease the downtown progressives and go unnoticed by voters who don’t read English.

It wouldn’t be the first time the PCs have played to a cultural community’s perceived opposition to LGBT people. In the dying days of the 2011 election, the party distributed flyers in English and Punjabi in Brampton ridings to drum up fears about a radical sex ed plan. But this may be the first time the strategy has actually worked for them.

Still, it’s unclear if the results of the byelection will be scalable for a province-wide victory in 2018. For one thing, it’ll be much harder for the party to convince different parts of the province that it supports both sides of the issue when the whole province is voting.

In 2018, Ontario will have 15 more ridings, approximately equal to the new federal ridings introduced last year. While some of the new ridings will give more power to new, often socially conservative immigrant communities in places like Brampton and Mississauga, the vast majority are going to under-represented, culturally mixed urban centres and growing suburbs of Toronto and Ottawa. Scarborough–Rouge River won’t even exist in 2018.

All these ridings will further erode the power of the PC base in Ontario’s rural and rust belt communities. Brown has to be aware that any path to victory in Ontario requires him to win big chunks of the socially progressive cities and suburbs. It’s why he’s been so aggressively trying to rebrand the party as progressive and inclusive since taking the leadership, even marching in Toronto Pride this year.

If so-con forces are indeed being pushed out of mainstream Ontario politics, that may be a good thing for everyone. LGBT people — especially school kids — shouldn’t be used as a political football. And in a province facing as many troubles as Ontario is — skyrocketing debt, slow growth, infrastructure shortfalls, high cost of living, struggling First Nations communities and growing distrust of law enforcement — we would all benefit to focus on the real issues rather than re-litigate culture wars that should have been finished a decade ago.

On the other hand, it’s not like so-con voters will disappear. They know which party is their only real choice. If they manage to hand the PCs victory in a handful of key ridings, one can only imagine how a Premier Brown would respond to their demands in office. Would he try to keep them silent like Stephen Harper largely accomplished? Or would  the sex ed debate continue  through the next decade?

Meanwhile, the victory of PC candidate Raymond Cho leaves a vacancy on Toronto city council that needs to be filled. If council orders a byelection — as it should — then progressive voters in Scarborough will have another opportunity to elect a progressive politician that will fight Mayor Tory’s regressive, cuts-based approach to governance that has simply carried forward the Ford era under a friendlier face.

If activists can find a way to respond to the actual needs of the community, a victory ought to be a slam dunk, given the impact Tory’s proposed cuts to social housing and transit will have on the region, as well the impact Tory’s policing policies are having on our racially diverse communities. Game’s not over yet.